Wednesday, February 8, 2012

North valley weighs in on airport

Councils urge action to ensure air service


By REBECCA MEANY
Express Staff Writer

Elected officials in the north valley agree that Friedman Memorial Airport is vital to the economy and vitality of the entire county. They also maintain that while relocation of the airport should remain an option, the sluggish economy demands a more practical option for the near term.

Representatives of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority and Blaine County officials updated the Ketchum and Sun Valley city councils Monday on the airport's status. They also were seeking input before deciding their next course of action.

Debate about the airport's future intensified last summer when the Federal Aviation Administration suspended the replacement airport environmental impact statement. The FAA directed the Airport Authority to look for ways to increase landing reliability at the current site.

"After six months, the [Airport Authority] is very near decision time," said airport Manager Rick Baird.

Baird said capacity at the current site is not an issue; design standards and reliability are the factors that need to be addressed. He noted that an upcoming report will show that reliability at the current site likely could be increased with the adoption of new technology.

He said a different layout for airport facilities also could improve reliability. Those could be part of a new airport layout plan.

"Early feedback is, yes, reliability can be improved," he said.

Baird described the EIS suspension as a "reset." But Ketchum Councilman Baird Gourlay characterized it differently.

"I saw it as a reject," he said.

Hundreds of millions of dollars would be needed to relocate the airport.

"I don't see that as a realistic alternative," he said.

In an interview, he said, "Let's concentrate on the aspects we can have control over, and can develop."

Gourlay said that no matter what the decision, the county would benefit by hiring a lobbyist to help push proposals to the FAA.

"If you're dealing with the federal government, you have to hire lobbyists," he said.

Whatever improvements are made, Gourlay said, money is still a major consideration. Officials should start as soon as possible discussing how much is needed and how it can be paid for, be it through a general obligation bond or other means.

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Sun Valley Councilman Nils Ribi, like other north valley officials, said an airport plan should be pursued while keeping relocation as a long-term goal.

"That process has to continue to move forward," he said.

Sun Valley Councilwoman Michelle Griffith emphasized what she said is a need to communicate to the community and to the FAA that both options are being pursued.

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall said making the current site work for now while exploring relocation later is the most prudent course.

"In a world of finite resources ... it seems it would be a distraction to put (relocation) first," he said.

Ketchum Councilman Larry Helzel suggested that the Airport Authority board, and thus the community, might be better served with different members.

He said the board has some "outstanding" people, but none has experience managing multi-billion-dollar projects.

The board is made up of three Hailey representatives, three county representatives and another member appointed by those jurisdictions.

"In order to restore the [Airport Authority's] credibility in our community, you need to repopulate or reinvigorate the board," Helzel said. "We're overwhelmed with this kind of managerial talent. It just happens to be everywhere but where we need it."

Wally Huffman, Sun Valley Co.'s director of resorts and resort development, said action is needed now.

"The patient is dying," he said.

Sun Valley City Councilman Bob Youngman echoed that sentiment.

"(Community members') lifestyle, it doesn't matter where you live in this valley, is dependent on this airport," he said. "From that comes the concept of urgency."

Rebecca Meany: rmeany@mtexpress.com

Airport discussion moves south

The Friedman Memorial Airport Authority will hold its regular meeting on Thursday, Feb. 9, but in a new location. The seven-member authority board will meet at Hailey City Hall at 5:30 p.m., having changed its location from the Blaine County Courthouse due to a scheduling conflict. Agenda items include a discussion of report from T-O Engineers on possible improvements to airport reliability at the current site. A draft report released with the meeting agenda indicates that improvements without relocation could be possible. The authority will also discuss possible relocation in the long term and other ways to retain commercial air service at Friedman. The meeting is open to the public, and attendees will be given an opportunity to comment.




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